Story C

Here is the first five pages of story ‘C’ that I am working on. There will be three stories posted. Give the a read and decide which one I should focus on finishing first.

Blood ran down the edge of a worn blade to wash over shaking fingers. Crimson beads formed and fell to the dusty ground below. A broad shouldered man of middling years gaped across the span of the blade, its tip pierced through his chest and jutting from his back. He wore no clothes. A sword almost identical to the one within him was held loosely in his hand. He smiled at his killer before falling backwards, sliding off of the blade and landing with his arms out and his glazed eyes staring up at the formless clouds above.

The second man who held the blood slick sword staggered back. He knew nothing of what had happened here. There were no memories in his head to latch onto. There had been nothing, then there had been a dying man on the end of a weapon that he held. Trying to think back before that moment was like trying to remember a dream after waking; it was there in the mists of the mind but felt like grasping at water.

The sword fell from his shaking fingers and he began to dry retch. He had killed a man. Why? What was going on? Where was he? Who was he? Emotions welled up inside of him and he howled wordlessly at the sky. It took all of his willpower to calm himself enough to think logically.

He looked down at himself. He too was naked. Long, muscled limbs and a lightly haired chest were his only impression of his appearance. It struck him that he had no idea what his face looked like or even what colour his hair was. Moving his free hand to his head, he took hold of his hair and pulled some into his view. It was long and tangled, pure black in colour and coated in dust.

After a moment, he forced himself to look down at the dead man. He took note of short grey hair, blue eyes and a long, continuous tattoo that ran down from his left eye like a vine that spread across his left arm, leg and body. Scars and fresh cuts formed a hectic latticework across his rough skin. Slowly, he reached out and closed the man’s eyes.

He turned from the corpse to take in his surroundings. Four low walls enclosed him in a dirt courtyard. The walls were made from faded stone that bore the marks of long since eroded carvings. Beyond them was a second set of walls that made up the bulk of the building. Gnarled gargoyles stared down with distorted features while stained-glass windows adorned the stone. Further back still rose five great towers that were topped with spiralled steeples. The towers seemed to reach out like pointed fingers trying to claw at the sun above them.

Panic flared into existence and raged through his body once more. He shook. Frantically he fumbled for something in his mind to tell him what had happened. There was nothing. He grabbed at himself with calloused hands, hoping that something about himself would spark even the dimmest of remembrance. Nothing did.

He cursed aloud and was surprised by the thin, rasping voice that emerged from him. The word hurt his throat. His lips were cracked and his mouth was dry. It must have been a long time since he had last had a drink. Other aches were gradually making themselves known through his mental fog.

Unsteadily, the man picked up the sword and made his way across the courtyard. He slipped into the shade of the low ceilinged canopy that lined the open space. It was only now that he was in shade that the man noticed just how hot the sun had been. Little wonder that the ground had been nothing more than dust.

At the entrance into the main building was a pile of discarded rags. The man searched the heap but found nothing of use. There was only torn clothes and armour that were beyond repair. His steps echoed hollowly as he ventured deeper into the building. The inside was entirely stone like the exterior except that where the ornamentations of the outer walls had been worn away by weather and time, within was a shrine to gothic art and intricate design.

Fighting had occurred there at some time. Statues and art were smashed to pieces, pews were displaced and splintered and long dried blood gave the stones a near black tinge. The man walked through the destruction, stopping only to stare at a toppled statue. It was of an elderly man in a long, thin coat who held a book in one hand and a vial in the other. The wrinkled face had been defaced with what appeared to be a snarling tiger’s head.

Stained glass crunched under his feet, leaving bloody footprints in his wake. He winced but continued on. Black marred patches around him like a cancer where fires had once burned. There were no signs of recent humanity. He passed a large font that was filled with ashes and what remained of burnt books.

Grand doors of dark wood inlaid with a single giant eye lay broken on the ground leaving harsh sunlight to flood into the hall. Slowly he approached the light. Each step increased the glare until the world was filled with the harsh whiteness that spilled from the gap.

Then colour snapped into place, blurry but beautiful. Yellows, browns and oranges dominated the landscape, mixing together sickeningly as the air shimmered with heat. He stepped out into a barren world of scorched earth, stunted and withered trees and a near cloudless sky. Mountains stood tall to the east, seeming to consume the world in that direction.

A stone path led from the church-like building for a short distance before abruptly ending. Seeing no better way, the man followed the path up to a tall wooden sign that bore direction arrows. Three plaques pointed out to indicate places called ‘Heaven’, ‘Baldarai’ and ‘Charmwood’. The ‘Heaven’ arrow pointed back at the church and was the only inscription that had not been crossed out and scribbled with the word ‘Death’.

A harsh sound started from behind a large rock that lay just off from the sign post. It was the first sound that the man had heard and it took him by surprise. He moved towards it cautiously with the sword held at the ready. Getting closer, finer details became apparent on the rock. Eyes and a mouth stared at his approach without blinking. It was the head of a statue. A stone halo ran around the head, as worn and weathered as the face’s features.

Behind it sat a man who cackled madly to himself. He was skin and bones draped in rags with dirty white hair and wrinkled skin. He looked up as the man approached and grinned widely, showing a row of broken teeth. A strange sense of familiarity washed over the man as he looked at the poor soul but he could not place why. Maybe he had known the man back before he had lost his memories.

“Another comes. He comes again. Life and death is death and life. Welcome! Welcome! Who are ye? I’m Malabub. Ye have a name?”

The man shook his head. He knew of no name to call himself. Malabub cackled all the harder at that. Doubt clouded his thoughts. It seemed that the old man did not know him already. Why then did that face pull at him?

“Another of the nameless are ye? Nameless is as good a name as Named. What is a name anyway? A gift from dear old mother and father so they can call ye to attention. Names are superficial and meaningless. Only the name that is in your heart means a thing and yer heart can’t talk.” His laugh was ecstatic now and shook his entire body.

“So Nameless, where do ye wander? There are many directions and all lead to death sooner or later.”

“I… don’t know,” the man croaked. It stung to speak. Malabub nodded sagely.

“Ye want answers. Those seeking answers should look to the beginning. Go to the Cradle beyond Baldarai. You will like Baldarai. It is a city of the dead, made by the dead, for the dead with the dead. All of the dead go there, but then so do all of the living. Ah, it is a beautiful place of sweet misery.” He pointed east and the man stared out at the hazy horizon.

When the man looked back to speak with Malabub he was gone. He had had so many questions that he needed to ask. There was no sign that anyone had ever sat there. He left the stone head and walked  in the direction that Malabub had pointed. There was no sign of a road from that point onwards so the man strode across the cracked plains toward the mountain range that loomed up to the heavens.

Each step brought a crunch of parched dirt. The heat distorted everything into wavy lines that stretch and shrank the few features that were in view. Sweat drenched his skin. Nothing changed in this barren land. It was like an optical illusion. Every direction that the man looked was as close to identical as the shimmering haze could allow. Within minutes he had no notion in which direction he walked. The distant mountains seemed to surround him like a cage.

He looked down to stop the dizziness that was overcoming him. He stopped. Not far to his right was a trail in the dust. The man approached the marks. They were footprints. Human footprints left from bare feet. Feet smaller than his own. He looked around but could see no other sign of life. Without any other markers he chose to follow them. Maybe the person who had left them could give him straighter answers than Malabub had.

The tracks zigzagged and swirled, sometimes seeming to disappear completely for a dozen steps before starting up again. He followed them doggedly, his entire will hanging on the hope that those small prints promised him. There was nothing else around. The aching of his limbs and severe dehydration were wearing him down. Only the prospect of another soul to help him kept him going.

A dark smear appeared on the horizon beneath the mountains. At first the man was unsure if his eyes were simply deceiving him but as he staggered gradually closer, the thin line resolved itself into a forest that bordered the mountains for as far as he could see. The footprints appeared to continue down into the trees.

With a renewed vigor, the man stumbled toward the forest, his eyes now locked on its shade like a beacon, only keeping the vaguest notice of the footprints at his side. To be out of the sun was reason enough to want to reach it but the prospect of finding food and water would have brought tears to his eyes if he had had the moisture to spare.

The sun had moved a considerable distance across the sky by the time that he reached the first gnarled tree. The leaves above were brown and dry but they provided a thick shelter from the blazing sun. More brittle leaves carpeted the ground and crunched noisily with his every step. This made the tracks harder to follow but not impossible. The man leaned in low, scanning the ground for broken leaves. Slowly, he made his way deeper into the forest.

Light faded fast as he left the sun behind. Wind rattled through the trees creating a cacophony of sound. The trail ended abruptly only a short distance into the forest and the man could not find where it resumed. Anguish and exhaustion consumed him and he sat down heavily. He looked around desperately but could see no fruit or berries, or any sign of a stream or pond. The forest would be his grave.

Defeated, he slumped fully to the ground and stared up at a small break in the canopy that bled white light. The wind grew calmer. In the quiet that followed, a new sound reached the man’s ears. It took a few moments to register to his slipping mind. It was a soft sniffing sound. It sounded like a child crying. If there was a child then that would explain the small footprints.

The man forced himself back onto his tired feet. He looked around, trying to locate the source of the sound. He thought that it was coming from somewhere above him. He scanned the trees, wandering in a haze toward the noise. Then he saw it. Two feet hanging from a branch. The rest of the body above the legs was obscured by leaves but the man could clearly see a figure within.

In a hoarse voice the man called up to the figure. The legs stopped swinging and became suddenly stiff. He shouted again and the leaves rustled with movement. The sobbing had stopped but a wizened breathing replaced it. After a third shout, the figure dropped from the tree.

With a strangled yelp, the man fell back and scrambled away as black feathers filled the air. The legs did look to belong to a child, small and pale as they were, but from the waist up there was nothing even remotely childish about the figure. Dark feathers covered the entirety of its upper body while pointed wings hung from where arms should have been. A razored beak jutted from an all too human face and yet more feathers crested the head in place of hair. The man amended his first thought. Those eyes were still all too childlike.

The beak opened jerkly. The beast started to make a croaking sound. Those eyes stared into his soul. He shivered.

“Kii. Kikiki. Kiiiiii,” it cawed painfully. “Hu-ma-an. Kiiiill hu-man.”

It took a moment for those half formed words to soak into the man’s head. In that time the beast had dashed forward with a feral scream that made his ears ring. He instinctively raised the sword between himself and the monster. It caught in the beast’s mouth, one side of the beak to either side of the old blade. His arm miraculously held despite the weakness in his muscles. Blood ran as the steel bit deep into the monster’s jaw. The beast didn’t appear to notice it. It simply renewed its efforts to rend his flesh.

Frantically the man kicked out. He managed to position his foot by the creature’s knee and thrust it out with all of his remaining strength. The joint crunched then buckled and the beast collapsed to the ground. It thrashed and squawked until the sword stabbed down into its chest. Without thought, his arm swung and cut deeply into a humanoid neck. Had the blade been sharper it would have decapitated the monster. Instinct and muscle memory had taken over from his chaotic thoughts. He was sure that he must have been a swordsman whatever life he had led before.

Leaves rattled all around him and a chorus of hellish screeches called out. More warped black shapes dove out from the trees at the man. Some had twisted talons instead of toes, others had scrawny human arms beneath black wings or human breasts bulging from feathered chests. All of them stared at him with tortured human eyes.

He ran. Terror stabbed at him, feeling his escape. His feet pounded through the leaves without any clear direction from his brain. The sounds of flapping and cawing followed after him, as well as what sounded like twisted speech. He dared not look back.

The ground took a sudden slope downwards and he lost his footing and fell. He rolled painfully to the bottom and was too winded to move when he came to a stop. He opened his eyes and struggled for breath until the world slowed its spinning.

Dozens of the bird creatures were hopping down the slope toward him. He tried but could not move. It felt like his leg was broken. The sword lay just beyond the reach of his questing fingers. Their caws and screeches were becoming a unified chant.

“Food. Food. Kiiil hu-man. Eat. Food. Rip flesh. Eat hu-man. Food.”

The man closed his eyes and waited for the end. Soft music began to play and he thought that he was becoming delirious with fear and exhaustion. The tune was a pleasant melody that made him feel warm and safe despite the danger and pain of his current situation.

The birds began to scream and clutched their heads with wings or boney hands. He watched in amazement as they wheeled around and fled from the sound as though it burned at their skin. Within seconds they were all gone from his sight. The music ended with a sharp click.

He rolled over as best as he could and saw a humanoid shape stood a few steps from him with a battered music box in its hand. Its body was wrapped in a thick grey cloak and its face was covered by a white mask without features. The cloak’s hood was pulled up, leaving no uncovered part of the figure’s body. A crossbow was held in its other hand.

“Who wanders the woods so ill equipped when the Changed number so many?” the person asked. The voice belonged to a woman. The man was suddenly very aware of the fact that he wore not a stitch.

She stepped up to him and helped him to his feet. “Come. I have a camp not far from here. You look in need of food. I have little need for my supplies now.”

With the woman’s support, they walked a short distance to where a small fire burned beside a muddy stream. A roll up mat was laid out beside the fire and a large bag sat beside it. The woman laid him upon the mat then rummaged through the bag.

“Thank you,” the man managed to say between heavy breaths. The woman showed no sign of answering him so he pressed on. “I have no name to tell you. I…lost my memories beyond this day. I was in a church. It was an old madman called Malabub who pointed me in this direction. He told me that I was Nameless.” That had all come out in a flood of hoarse words.

The woman finally looked toward him. “I am Alliana Cardihn,” she told him in a near whisper. “What I would give to forget my past,” she added almost to herself. “Some believe your kind cursed. I believe you to be the blessed few. This madman Malabub that you spoke off was right though. You should claim Nameless as your own. If that sounds to blunt for you then maybe consider Lon’alar. That is the translation in the Old King’s tongue.”

The man liked this name. Lon’alar. A name meant nothing but it was strangely comforting to gain a sense of identity. From Malabub, Nameless had seemed mocking. From this Alliana it felt like a gift.

He watched as Alliana set a small kettle of water to boil over the fire. She took a sachet of green powder from her bag then tipped it into a dented pewter cup. Once the water was bubbling, she poured it into the cup and stirred until all of the powder had dissolved, then passed it to Lon’alar.

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